Marriage and family therapists are advancing a new way to disarm people when they lose their cool: the Aikido of Communication
SOUL’S CODE — Like a scene out of the Michael Douglas movie, Falling Down, a just-divorced aerospace worker in California’s “Inland Empire,” dressed up as a Santa on Christmas Eve 2008 and shot nine people at his in-laws’ holiday party.
The day after Christmas, 2008 in Philadelphia, 29-year-old James Joseph Cialella Jr. shot a father in a movie theatre after arguing with the latter and his son while watching the Brad Pitt-Cate Blanchett vehicle, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
It’s not a total coincidence that the shootings in Covina and Philly took place on either side of Christmas Day. Intake calls at police stations and domestic shelters spike at tribal times of year. What’s suppressed in-the-house, will be externalized outside the house.
The shootings are extreme examples of holiday despair and family tensions boiling over into violence. For the vast majority of families, these issues show up in garden-variety arguments and yelling matches.
In our relationship conflicts there are four possible responses to anger, says Margaret Cullen (left), a marriage and family therapist who has shown her stuff at high-end conferences of scientists and psychologists like San Francisco’s Happiness & Its Causes.
Three of our ways of dealing with an angry lover, boss , father, or fill-in-the-blank are highly conditioned. Like, they don’t work that great.
Cullen is an advocate of a fourth way, “The Aikido of Communication.”
“In aikido,” she says, “the goal is to practice maintaining your own center and calmness under physical attack, and to make use of the attacker’s own irrational and imbalanced energy to dissipate his or her energy without getting hurt yourself . . .”
Here is a matrix of the choices we face, when someone gets in our face. Cullen demonstrated these four modes on stage with a longtime Tibetan Buddhist monk who had a comically hard time play-acting the role of the attacker:
1. Going ‘doormat’: You agree with all of your accuser’s complaints. You apologize, grovel, and promise amends. Going ‘doormat’ doesn’t feel very good but it makes the angry person stop. In that sense, it is disarming.
2. Avoidance: You turn away from the angry person, like the couple in the picture above. Unfortunately, the more distance you seek from your angry ‘other,’ the more it triggers their anger. It’s like baiting a fishing line. Try walking away; the angry person will follow behind, as if pulled by an invisible leash.
3. Fight back: It feels immediately satisfying and seemingly empowering. You are ‘standing up for yourself.’ But it’s a faux sense of completion. It amounts to co-venting. And let it be said, it can also amount to a surreptitious way of staying connected to an estranged mate or family member whose affection is no longer available. It also triggers escalation.
The upshot, all of the above interactions are flavors of what John Gottman famously called “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” — his metaphor for behaviors that kill communication in relationships. They are: Contempt, Criticism, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.
Cullen’s premise isn’t based on a ‘fight or flight’ response. Instead, she invites would-be opponents to “stay and play.”
4. The Aikido of Communication:
It involves physically positioning yourself, much like an actor ‘blocks’ out his or her performance on stage, to turn the energy that is anger in the other person. Cullen calls the movement, “blending” and “entering.”
You step into the attacker’s field, or personal space, and stand beside them. Face the same direction, and invite her or she to look at the problem they’re complaining about as an arms-length object out there which the two of you will tackle together, side by side.
“You become partners rather than adversaries,” says Cullen, “whether the other person wants to or not.”
For more details on how to apply the principles of aikido to communication in relationships, Cullen recommonds Jon Kabat-Zinn’s, Full Catstrophe Living.
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